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Biology 103
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Wonder Girls and Steroids

Sarah Naimzadeh

Over fall break, I watched with fascination as Barbara Walters interviewed women from the East German Swim Team on 20/20, women once known as "wonder girls" for their amazing abilities. While training for the 1976 Olympic Games, these women, then adolescent and pre-adolescent girls, were given, unbeknownst to them, anabolic steroids to enhance their performance. (1). The "wonder girls" won virtually every gold medal they competed for but now, years later, they, and their children, are suffering from the steroids given to them. The women experienced birth defects, enlarged hearts and gynecological problems; one former swimmer said that she had seven miscarriages. (1) Under a national plan, "State Plan 14.25," the East German government "called for the administering of male hormones to male and female athletes." (2) The swimmers, and many other Olympic athletes, took the German manufactured steroid Oral-Turinabol, believing they were vitamins. (3) Having heard the testimony of these women, I wanted to learn more about the effects of steroids on the human body, especially the effect of male hormones on a pre-adolescent female.

The women of the East German swim team received Oral-Turinabol, an anabolic steroid, derived from testosterone. (4) Testosterone is responsible for protein biosynthesis, which "accelerates muscle buildup, increases the formation of red blood cells, speeds up regeneration, and speeds up recovery time after injuries or illness." (5) This process is desirable to all athletes as it increases the muscle mass in a much more efficient process. Steroids are not a new addition to the sports world; in fact, "during the 1930s, scientists discovered that anabolic steroids could facilitate the growth of skeletal muscle in laboratory animals," another process desirable to athletes. (6) There are, however, legitimate medical purposes for steroids such as to "treat delayed puberty, some types of impotence, and wasting of the body caused by HIV infection or other diseases." (6)

The use of steroids by athletes is not an issue that the Official Olympic Committee takes lightly. When most people think of the Olympics, the phrase "fair play" comes to mind. This is a characteristic that Olympic athletes, judges and audiences value. According to the mission statement of the World Anti-Doping Agency,(WADA), "doping is fundamentally against the ethos of the spirit of the Olympic Games: the fair play. Many of the prohibited substances and methods are harmful to athletes' health and can cause short and long-term damage." (7) Until 1998, there was no world-wide authority on substance abuse in the Olympic Games; the International Olympic Committee (IOC) founded the World Anti-Doping Agency to test athletes and take control of the issue of substance use. For example, the WADA has banned anabolic steroids, beta lockers and diuretics from the Olympics because the both the advantage that they create and the risks that they impose. (7)

The risks associated with anabolic steroids are considerable. Among the most startling stories to come from the East German Olympic teams was that of Andreas Krieger, formerly known as Heidi Krieger, a member of the Track and Field team. In the trial against Manfred Ewald, former East German team doctor, and Dr. Manfred Höppner, former team medical consultant, Krieger testified that, "I was no longer Heidi Krieger. I didn't know anymore who I was…. The pills accelerated any transsexual tendencies I may already have had. I wasn't able to identify with my body anymore, and that led me to undergo a sex change in 1997." (8) According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the use of male hormones on the developing female body can produce irreversible effects that amount to masculinization: "breast size and body fat decrease, the skin becomes coarse, the clitoris enlarges, and the voice deepens. Women may experience excessive growth of body hair but lose scalp hair." (9)

There are other side effects for both men and women that may result after use of steroids. It has been reported that steroid use may contribute to the development of cardiovascular diseases, may increase the risk of blood clots, liver tumors and blood filled cysts forming in the liver, peliosis hepatis. Homicidal rage, mania and delusions have also been connected to the abuse of steroids. (9)

Another serious concern, which fortunately did not apply to the "wonder girls," is the possibility of HIV/AIDS transmission through "dirty needles." (The "wonder girls" received steroids orally, believing that they were vitamins.) When sharing needles to take steroids, athletes put themselves in danger of contracting many diseases, in addition to bacterial infections.

Despite the existence of drug testing, the former East German athletes passed all of the drug tests, to the surprise of many. The researchers and team doctors "calculated how long it took for the steroids to pass through the athlete's bodies, so as to ensure that the steroids could be stopped in time to test clean for competitions." (1) Today, the WADA tests one random competitor and the three medal winners in each event. "To prevent cheating, athletes are accompanied by a chaperone - who is always the same gender as the athlete - who must stay with the athlete during the whole testing process. Because of this surveillance, and the very carefully selected handling procedure of the samples, fraudulently manipulating a test is very unlikely." (1) This alleviates the issue of cheating during the test, and I suppose we should assume that tests are more sophisticated today than twenty years ago; they can detect drugs that were in the system previously.

Considering the serious implications that come with steroids, I was curious as to the punishment that the team doctors and athletes who use steroids would receive. A jury found the East German team doctors guilty and sentenced them to probation; a most lenient punishment considering the "wonder girls" will have health problems for the rest of their lives. The price is much steeper for the athlete who knowingly takes the drugs; the WADA has set guidelines for sanctions. After the first offence, the agency implements a two-year suspension and a removal of any record or medal.

I cannot believe the leniency shown to the doctors after reading the lists of medical problems suffered by these women. In the 20/20 interview, Jutta Klass, an East German athlete said, "they didn't treat us like humans. We were practically machines. They used us." (1) These competitions were during the Cold War and many East Germans may have considered an Olympic victory, a socialist victory. Birgit Meineke stated, "what they did to us was carried out in an unconscionable manner. I blame steroids for my deep voice and for my liver tumor. I want to become a grandmother, and I worry I won't have that opportunity." (1) This is a disgusting case of medical immorality, scientists using other human beings as guinea pigs. As I stated before, I do not believe that probation is the appropriate sentence for a man who has destroyed the lives of hundreds of women. As one more nail in the coffin of the "wonder girls," I leave you with this quote from Rica Reinisch, "the worst thing is they took away from me the opportunity to ever know if I could have won the gold medals without the steroids. That's the greatest betrayal of all." (1)

WWW Sources

1) East German Doping Scandal, Summary of the 20/20 interview of the Wonder Girls

2)East Germany's Olympic Legacy, article about Manfred Ewald's trial

3)ASCA Online Articles, History of Doping

4) - SPECIAL - Anabolic Steroids, First of an eight week series about steroids and athletes

5)Steroids general anabolic steroid information, A beginner's guide to anabolic steroids

6)NIDA Research report - Anabolic Steroid Abuse, Page 2, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Research Report Series

7)WADA - AMA, World Anti-Doping Agency, official homepage

8), article on national trial

9)NIDA Research Report - Anabolic Steroid Abuse, Page 2, Anabolic Steroid Report